Union declines to identify schools

A teachers’ union is declining to identify two private or parochial schools that it says will refuse state aid for voucher students until the union’s legal challenge is resolved.

Last week the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state’s two largest teacher unions, asked most of the 119 schools that the state authorized to accept voucher students to decline the aid or face lawsuits.

Brian Blackwell, an attorney for the group, said in an email that one school has agreed to do so “until there was a final and definitive decision on its constitutionality,” a reference to the state’s newly-expanded voucher program.

“We are working with the other school to hold the funds in escrow pending the courts’ determination of the constitutionality of the program,” Blackwell wrote.

“In light of this being an ongoing matter, I would prefer not to comment on the identity of the schools involved,” he said.

Blackwell’s comments stemmed from a request by the LAE to furnish the names of any schools that notified the union that it would not accept voucher dollars, which are supposed to pay for tuition and mandatory fees.

Under a law that won final approval in April, students who attended public schools rated C, D or F, and who meet income rules, can qualify for the aid, which backers call scholarships.

State Superintendent of Education John White said last week that the state authorized vouchers for about 5,600 of the nearly 10,000 students who applied.

Up to 1,000 more students may get the aid depending on available seats in the schools taking part.

Last week’s request to schools by the LAE included a form letter that schools could send White saying that they planned to decline the state aid.

“The department has not received notification from any participating school indicating this form of intimidation has caused them to reconsider their participation,” White said in a prepared statement released on Monday.

LAE officials called the faxed letters a legal step that would prevent schools from having to repay the state aid if the voucher law is struck down.

A hearing is set for October.

White and other critics accused the LAE of trying to scare schools into backing out of the program.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who pushed the law, calls the expanded voucher program a way for students to escape failing public schools.

The LAE, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association have challenged the law in the 19th Judicial District Court, in part because of the way it was passed by the Legislature.

Josh LeSage, administrator of Hosanna Christian Academy, which has been authorized for 299 voucher students, said last week he is mindful of potential problems if schools are forced to return the state aid because of a court ruling.

But LeSage said the value of the program outweighs those financial concerns.

“This is a matter of social justice,” he said.

How much schools collect depend on tuition and how many students they are authorized to accept.


LSU hospital cuts plans announced

LSU was able to identify dollars within the public hospital system that would mitigate 80 percent of the planned cuts.

But much of the reductions comes from one-time money.

The Health Care Services Division was able to come up with internal administrative changes to cover about 80 percent of the state’s match for the cuts that were required. “Most of this is not renewable. But what it does is that there is a desire to change how we operate in different areas,” said Fred Cerise, vice president in charge of the LSU Health Care Services Division.

“It gets us through this immediate crisis and gives us time to work on the things the board wanted us to work on,” Cerise said in an interview Friday afternoon.

Cerise was referring to what he said the LSU board wanted him and his staff to consider, such as public-private partnerships, sale or lease of hospitals and other models.

Cerise submitted his initial report to the LSU Board of Supervisors Friday afternoon that detailed how about $320 million in cuts would be parceled out. The $320 million represents one-fourth of the LSU hospital systems budget, but the dollars targeted represent 50 percent of the funds used to care for the state’s uninsured.

The proposed reductions include the closure of an operating room in the Earl K. Long Medical Center on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge and half the operating rooms at the Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma. The University Medical Center at Lafayette would reduce the radiology maintenance and physician contracts, according to the plan.

The Lallie Kemp Regional Medical Center in Independence is reducing its treatments for cancer and diseases of the eye, the plan indicated.

Emergency room services would be decreased 25 percent at E.A. Conway Medical Center in Monroe, acute care beds will be reduced 35 percent at Huey P. Long Medical Center in Pineville, and LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport would reduce services and use one-time funds to allow time for more strategic long-term solutions, according to a report that will be presented Friday afternoon to the LSU Board of Supervisors.

The cuts are part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plans to close an $859 million hole in the state Medicaid budget prompted by a sudden decline in federal participation in the government health insurance program. Administration officials announced $522.5 million in budget reductions in response with 60 percent of them falling on LSU.

Search committee chosen for LSU leaders

An LSU Board of Supervisors committee to for a system president recommended R. William Funk & Associates, of Dallas, as search firm at a cost of $120,000 plus expenses.

Jindal out of state campaigning

Gov. Bobby Jindal apparently will be in Iowa Thursday to stump for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Iowa media reported Jindal would hold a meet-and-greet at 12:30 p.m. and visit the Kum & Go Headquarters at 6 p.m. However, the Jindal’s press office had made no announcement about the governor’s daily schedule until 12:27 p.m. Thursday.

Romney is overseas, leaving Jindal and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to campaign for him.

Earlier this year, Jindal stumped for Romney in Illinois, Ohio and a string of other states.

While Jindal is gone, his administration will be working on more than $300 million in cuts to the LSU hospital system that provides health care to the poor.

Individual schools to be sued over vouchers

Attorneys for a teachers’ union are threatening lawsuits against individual private and parochial schools that accept voucher payments.

Voucher backers denounced the maneuver.

The letters to schools were sent on behalf of the Louisiana Association of Educators, which has challenged the voucher law in the 19th Judicial District Court.

A hearing is set for October, but state Superintendent of Education John White announced earlier this week that vouchers have been authorized for about 5,600 students at 119 schools statewide.

But a letter sent by LAE attorneys to St. Theodore Holy Family Catholic School in Lake Charles, which is one of the voucher schools, says that any voucher payments to the school “would constitute an unconstitutional payment of public funds.”

Unless the school agrees not to take the state aid, the letter says, “we will have no alternative other than to institute litigation against St. Theodore Holy Family Catholic School,” including a request for a temporary restraining order from accepting any state funds.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Advocate, asks for a faxed response by Friday at 4 p.m.

Brian Blackwell of Blackwell & Associates, who sent the letters, said about 95 have been sent to schools so far.

In a telephone interview, Blackwell said since a judge has declined to prevent the state from dispersing voucher dollars the letters are aimed at keeping schools from accepting them.

“The purpose of the letter is to give each of those schools the opportunity to do that on a voluntary basis rather than having to do it on a litigated basis,” he said.

Blackwell said the action would also prevent efforts to recover the state aid if the program is ruled unconstitutional.

LAE officials, who are holding a conference in Marksville, were not immediately available for comment.

Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Thursday superintendents of Catholic schools that have agreed to accept voucher students have been told to ignore the LAE’s letter.

“We are not going to pay any attention to this,” Loar said. “They are just trying to intimidate us.”

White was not available for comment.

Jimmy Faircloth, an attorney in Alexandria who is representing the state in the lawsuit, is out of the office, according to a spokeswoman for the firm.

Kyle Plotkin, director of communications for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who initiated the voucher expansion program, called the LAE’s stance shameful.

Eric Lewis, head of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a backer of vouchers, called the letter sophomoric.

Blackwell disagreed with the criticism. “It is neither an attempt to intimidate people nor shameful,” he said.

“I mean the program is unconstitutional,” Blackwell added. “The lawyers for the bishops should know that. I know the governor knows that. And you know all we are doing is trying to prevent the spending of public dollars on unconstitutional programs.”

The new voucher law allows students who attended C, D and F public schools, and who meets income rules, to qualify for vouchers to pay for tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools.

Jindal has called the aid a way out for students trapped in failing schools.

The LAE and other public school groups contend that the way the bill passed the Legislature was illegal.

They also say that the vouchers improperly redirect state tax dollars long reserved for public schools to private and parochial schools

BESE approves voucher rules

Louisiana’s top school board Tuesday afternoon voted 9-2 to endorse an accountability plan for voucher schools and students recommended by state Superintendent of Education John White.

The vote followed a two-hour meeting, including praise and critcism from school officials and others.

White on Monday unveiled a plan aimed at ensuring oversight of the state’s expanded voucher program.

Under the guidelines, students who attended C, D and F public schools, and whose families meet income rules, can qualify for vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.

Schools that meet enrollment thresholds – about 25 percent initially – will get scores from the state that show how voucher students are faring on the same standardized tests taken by public school students.

Those that fail to meet state standards would be banned from accepting additional voucher students.

“This is a bold first step that, for the most part, gets it right,” said Chas Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge and is vice-president of the panel.

Others who backed the plan included the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Lottie Beebe, a BESE member from Breaux Bridge, criticized the policy’s lack of assigning letter grades to schools that accept voucher students.

“We are not playing on an equitable playing field,” said Beebe, who voted “no” on the policy along with Carolyn Hill, who lives in Baton Rouge.

Others opposing White’s plan included the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The policy requires that test results be reported to the state for voucher students in private schools even if they fail to meet enrollment thresholds that trigger a score from the state.

More than 10,000 students have applied for vouchers.

State officials are notifying families this week whether they will receive a voucher and for which school.


White seeks annual reports on voucher students

State Superintendent of Education John White wants the state to issue annual reports on how voucher students are faring without labeling the entire private or parochial schools they attend.

The plan is spelled out in documents for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, which is set the review the issue on Tuesday at 11 a.m.

White plans to discuss his plan with reporters on Monday at 1:30 p.m.

The issue stems from a new state law that expands Louisiana’s voucher program to students who attended public schools rated C, D or F by the state, and whose families met income rules.

The law requires White to decide what sort of testing and other accountability those students will face starting with the 2012-13 school year.

In documents released on Monday, the state Department of Education said voucher students will be subject to annual reports similar to school performance scores, which are issued to all of the state’s roughly 1,300 public schools.

Those scores primarily reflect how students fared on standardized exams, including the LEAP test that fourth and eighth-graders have to pass for promotion.

Backers call the aid scholarships.

Under White’s plan, voucher students would be subject to a “scholarship cohort index,” which will be issued at the end of the school year solely for voucher students.

Schools accepting voucher students that score less than 50 out of a maximum of 150 in the second year of participation and after will be banned from accepting additional voucher students for the next school year.

Students attending such schools would also have the option of transferring to another voucher school.

The plan also says that, if BESE concludes that a school accepting voucher students fails to meet quality standards, it can be removed from the voucher program or banned from accepting new students.

Unlike public school students, White’s plan does not require students to pass LEAP or other tests for promotion.

There is also no indication that private or parochial schools that accept voucher students would be assigned a letter grade like public schools.

More than 10,000 students have applied for the vouchers.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who pushed the law, calls the state aid a way out for students trapped in failing public schools.

Two teacher unions and the Louisiana School Boards Association have challenged the law in the 19th Judicial District Court.

They contend that the measure was passed illegally by the Legislature and that it is unconstitutional for the state to use dollars long reserved for public schools to finance tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools.


Head of OMV submits resignation

After a year and a half as the state’s motor vehicles commissioner, Nick Gautreaux said late Monday that he is quitting.
Gautreaux, a former state senator, said he plans to build a career in corporate development and governmental work.
“It’s a good opportunity,” he said.
Gautreaux said he will work for a company he already part owns and seek contract jobs. His last day with the state will be in early August.
In December 2010, Gautreaux replaced Kay Hodges as commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles. The agency is best known as the place in charge of issuing drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.
He said Monday that his new job will keep him closer to home and his five children in Youngsville. His children range in age from 4 to 16.
Gautreaux said family, income and travel factored into his decision to pursue the private sector.
“I’ve been traveling for 10 years. My kids are at an age when a parent needs to be home,” he said.
State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said Monday night Gautreaux’s resignation comes amid internal issues with his administrative approach. He said those issues did not involve anything criminal.
He said employees complained that Gautreaux did not always follow state government procedure or treat workers uniformly. He said he was working with Gautreaux on those issues and did not seek his resignation.
“It’s been a difficult transition to go from the Senate to state government,” Edmonson said.
He said Gautreaux can tout accomplishments, including decreasing the public’s wait time.

Jindal heads for Nebraska

Gov. Bobby Jindal will be in Nebraska stumping for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney this weekend while other governors are in Virginia discussing job creation.

The governor’s press office confirmed Friday that Jindal will skip the National Governors Association’s 104th annual meeting in Williamsburg, Va. The meeting’s focus is job creation and economic development.

“The Governor will be addressing the Nebraska Republican Party State Convention in support of Governor Romney on Saturday,” Jindal’s spokeswoman, Shannon Bates, said by email.

Jindal cuts LSU hospitals to help balance health care budget

The Jindal administration unveiled part of its plan to close a nearly $860 million hole in the state’s health insurance program for the poor Friday, with the brunt of the reduction falling on the LSU hospital system.

More than $300 million of the $522.5 million in cuts announced in a late afternoon news conference took money for care of the uninsured used to operate the 10 hospitals, which are training grounds for the state’s future physicians, nurses and other health care professionals.

Threats of cuts of much less magnitude have prompted LSU officials in the past to warn that many of the hospitals would have close.

Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater said the administration hopes to close the remainder of the hole with funds that may be left over when the books finally close on the fiscal year that ended June 30.

If that additional revenue does not materialize by August or September more cuts to the state’s $7.7 billion Medicaid program would have to occur, he said.

“The bottom line is we will have a balanced budget,” said Rainwater.

The rate the federal government will pay toward Louisiana’s Medicaid program is changing from 71.92 percent to a projected 65.51 percent.

The change prompts a $859.2 million reduction to the state’s $7.7 billion Medicaid program. The change in federal participation occurs Oct. 1 with the beginning of the new federal budget year.

The move caught the Jindal administration by surprise, occurring after Louisiana’s legislature passed a new budget for the state fiscal year which began July 1. The Louisiana Medicaid reduction was a part of a compromise congressional federal transportation appropriations bill that also insured that Louisiana and other Gulf states would share in money from fines related to the BP oil disaster.

As it became apparent that the funds would be lost, Rainwater said that he and state health chief Bruce Greenstein had begun work on “a plan that continues to reform and restructure the way the state delivers health care services.”